For some of us the holidays, rather than evoking memories of pleasant events, are a time when we remember all the bad things that seem to concentrate around that period between October 1 and January 21. For me, because for forty years, my job has had me on the go a lot, the memories are usually of the worst travel experiences I’ve had.
I lived in Seoul, Korea from 1973 to 1977, and in fact met and married my wife there. The memories of the worst travel in Korea are the year 1974, when our first child was just a month old, and my wife was pregnant with the second. My wife and I had established the custom of driving from Seoul to Taejon, about an hour drive, once or twice a month to have dinner at one of the great restaurants there. That part of the Seoul-Pusan highway was paved, and it was usually a pleasant drive down in the morning, with us returning to Seoul around eight or nine at night.
Three days before Christmas that year, we did as usual, and drove to Taejon, where we had a great lunch and dinner, and enjoyed having the locals fuss over our son. That was when we had one of the worst holiday travel experiences I’d had since getting seasick on my first ocean voyage to Europe in 1963. I was driving a 1950s era Rambler in those days, held together with spit and bailing wire, but which hadn’t to that point given me any trouble. A lot of the internal systems didn’t work; the speedometer for instance, but I’d not given that a lot of thought. As long as you didn’t hit anything, or weren’t driving too fast, the Korean cops ignored you. Unfortunately, I didn’t know that the fuel gauge was also on the fritz.
We left Taejon around seven in the evening, already dark that time of year, and headed up the highway toward Seoul. There was hardly any traffic, and this was before median lights had been installed, so it was dark. My headlights worked okay, and the main lanes had been cleared of the snow and ice that had fallen the previous week. The snow banks alongside the highway glistened in the reflected glow of my headlights. Our son, who had taken all the attention and fuss with equanimity rare in a month-old baby, was asleep in his carrier, secured to the back seat, and my wife sat in back with him. Alone in the front seat, I focused on the road ahead, only occasionally glancing at the non-functional speedometer and the gas gauge, which indicated that I had a half tank of fuel.
I didn’t have a half tank, though; the engine was running on fumes when we left Taejon, and about twenty kilometers outside Seoul even the fumes ran out. The engine sputtered a couple of times and stopped. I had just enough speed to coast to the shoulder. To avoid draining the battery, I turned the engine (and the heater) off. I had to leave my wife and son in a cold and dark car while I walked through the biting cold to a gas station about five kilometers further along the highway. I bought five gallons of petrol, and walked back, because the attendant couldn’t or wouldn’t leave the station. Using a rolled up newspaper, I got most of the gas into the tank, and mercifully, the engine hadn’t gotten too cold to start. We made it home just before the midnight curfew, which was in effect in Korea at the time, sparing us the hassle of having to explain to some soldier or cop what we were doing out so late.
As memories of the worst travel go, this doesn’t rank up there with the Titanic or Hindenburg, but it remains one of my worst holiday travel experiences.